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An Opening Day Requiem

While teaching at a progressive, experimental school in the '70s, the suggestion of creating a national holiday, or at minimum a school observance, was a rather easy sell. Of course, I'm talking about Opening Day, which passed quietly Thursday amid the surreal pandemic that we're enduring at the present time.

Retreating almost 50 years, the school was Van Gorder-Walden, or VGW as we called it. Former Latin School head Ed Van Gorder was the founder, and Walden was a farm in southeastern Wisconsin where each student in grades K-12 spent a month in 10-day chunks during the fall, winter and spring. The city campus was on the top floor of the Catholic Charities building at 721 North LaSalle Avenue.

Much has changed in the past half-century, but the beginning of the baseball season remains a staple of our lives. Opening Day represents a new awakening, high hopes, almost-spring, tulips and daffodils, and, of course, a dose of foolish aspirations.
In the mid-'70s, I suggested to Headmaster Van Gorder that 20 or 30 students accompanying me to the South Side for the Sox opener would represent a cultural experience unmatched by any other event. Using the city as a classroom, riding public transportation, and increasing our breadth of experience all were tenets of the curriculum. Ed dwelled on the request for the better part of maybe 15 seconds before approving the proposal.

One opener that sticks out in my memory was 1978. Coming off the 1977 season of the South Side Hitmen, there was reasonable optimism to think the ballclub could come close to the 90 victories of the previous year.

Yes, Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble had moved to greener (literally) pastures where the money resided. Zisk went to Texas for $2.75 million over 10 years - a mere pittance by today's standards - while Gamble signed with the Padres for six years at $475,000 per, a notable hike over the $100,000 the Sox paid him. We should note that neither player matched his South Side numbers despite making lots more cash.

Even minus the two sluggers, 1978 featured new blood with former Cub star Don Kessinger at shortstop and aging veteran Bobby Bonds, who hit 31 homers that season. Unfortunately he smashed only two with the Sox before being dispatched in mid-May to Texas in exchange for the more economical Claudell Washington.

In addition, Ron Blomberg, who had been injured for two years, assumed the DH role. Five years earlier Blomberg became enshrined in baseball history as the very first player to stride to the plate as a designated hitter.

Holdovers Eric Soderholm, Jorge Orta, Ralph Garr, Lamar Johnson and Chet Lemon joined returning moundsmen Steve Stone, Wilbur Wood, Ken Kravec and Francisco Barrios to provide a core of proven professionals.

Almost 51,000 fans - including me and my students - filled Comiskey Park on Opening Day to watch our Sox take on Boston's Sox. Blomberg hit a game-tying ninth inning home run - one of only five dongs he hit the entire season - before Wayne Nordhagen's double scored Lemon for the walk-off win.

Alas, that was the highlight. Not just for that afternoon, but really for the next 161 games. The team split its first eight contests before stumbling to a 71-90 finish, basically transposing the numbers from the season before.

That 1978 season signaled a downward spiral for the franchise. My students were present for the 1979 opener that resulted in a 10-2 loss to the Blue Jays. Owner Bill Veeck was so embarrassed that he invited anyone with a ticket stub to present it at a future game and be admitted gratis.

Despite or maybe because of the challenges, Veeck continued to promote the team during the offseason, appearing at clubs, churches, synagogues and schools to banter with fans and answer questions; sort of like a poor man's roving Soxfest, devoid of the glitter, publicity and ballplayers but chock full of Veeck's stories, humor, and goodwill.

Our school enlisted his services one evening prior to the '78 season for a small fundraiser. Like Veeck, we were undercapitalized, and a few hundred bucks on a weeknight bought some supplies and perhaps filled the school van with gas.

The late winter night was dark, cold and damp so that only a handful of folks were present about 30 minutes before Bill was scheduled to arrive. Harlan Stern, proprietor of Sterch's tavern nearby on Lincoln Avenue, was a staunch Sox fan surrounded by Cub fanatics. We needed bodies so we phoned Harlan to see how many of his patrons were interested in making the short journey to North LaSalle Street to meet Bill Veeck. Turned out that about 30 of them, primarily Cub fans, walked through the door in a matter of minutes. No matter Cub fan or Sox fan, Veeck had crowd appeal.

Part of Bill's shtick focused on his days as owner of the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns in the early '50s. One of his tales concerned a fan who called the ticket office to ask about seat location. "What's available?" the fan asked. "How about second base?" Bill responded. "We're not using it."

The libation for the evening was Edelweiss beer, brewed not far from Comiskey Park. It was sold by the Lasser Company on the southwest corner of Sheffield and Altgeld in the DePaul neighborhood. Today the building is filled with condos. Lasser's made its own soda pop on the premises, a rainbow of colors and flavors. More importantly to individuals such as myself, they had cases of beer stacked head-high on the concrete floor with Edelweiss reigning prominent. It also was the cheapest, so naturally we loaded up a few cases.

Edelweiss.jpg

Veeck was a big hit with the meager audience. The numbers didn't seem to matter. The man simply enjoyed being around people whether it was 10 or 100. The truly significant numbers were those coming through the turnstiles at Comiskey.

When the room emptied that evening, the supply of Edelweiss remained in abundance, and malted beverage was a staple of the Veeck diet. He stuck around until near midnight, although the baseball conversation took a back seat. Veeck was more interested in talking about books of which he read four or five a week. He was in his element.

My second teaching gig was at Francis Parker, which first opened its doors in 1901. In terms of stability, coming from VGW, whose doors closed forever after eight years, it felt like leaving the Idaho Falls Chukars for Yankee Stadium.

However, at Parker, taking my class to Opening Day never was an option - though my two boys who followed me to Parker managed to leave school on a few occasions to attend Sox openers with the approval of their teachers. We played it straight, writing notes to the effect of, "Please excuse Chet and Billy at noon today to attend a Chicago cultural event known as Opening Day at Comiskey Park."

For some mysterious reason, that seemed to work. I suspect that numbers of Parker scholars in a building filled with Cub fans ventured 14 blocks north along Clark Street - the school resides in the 2200 block - for Cub openers, and my kids' instructors had a propensity for fairness.

My wife Judy, a Sox devotee in her own right, would pick up the boys in front of the school, and away they went wrapped in their winter jackets for seats usually in the right field lower deck at Comiskey Park.

I managed to meet them briefly for one opener, which turned out to be a big mistake. That would be the 1987 debacle against the Tigers. There was a mid-day break in my classes, and I had been employed at Parker for nine year,s so I took the liberty to take in a couple of innings with my family.

By the time I got to the ballpark in the second inning the Tigers had a 3-0 lead, thanks to Lou Whitaker's leadoff home run on the season's very first pitch, followed by a single and another homer by Matt Nokes. After just four offerings by Sox starter Neil Allen, the Sox trailed by three.

Before I left Comiskey in the fourth frame, home runs by Darrell Evans and former Sox Chet Lemon gave the visitors a 7-0 advantage. Of course, my loved ones remained until the bitter end of an 11-4 pasting while I returned to school for the day's final class. I can't say that anyone noticed my absence.

When and if we have an Opening Day this season remains to be seen. But someday there will be another one, and when it arrives, the emotions, joy and hopes will burst forth possibly like never before. May we all be here to add it to our Opening Day memories.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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